A recent article in the New York Times revealed that over half of Americans are taking prescription medication for chronic health problems.
The numbers were gathered last year by Medco Health Solutions Inc., which manages prescription benefits for about one in five Americans.
The data indicates that 51 percent of American children and adults were taking one or more prescription drugs for a chronic condition, up from 47 percent in 2001. The use of drugs to treat health problems was seen in all demographic groups:
- Almost two-thirds of women 20 and older
- One in four children and teenagers
- 52 percent of adult men
- Three-quarters of people 65 or older
28 percent of women and 22 percent of men over 65 take five or more medicines regularly.
Exactly what medications are people taking? In 2006, the top five drugs by sales were Lipitor, Nexium, Prevacid, Advair Diskus and Singulair. Lipitor lowers cholesterol, Nexium & Prevacid lower stomach acid, and Advair Diskus and Singulair address asthma and allergies respectively.
The drugs on this list reveal much about the weakness of the mainstream medical model. Cholesterol and stomach acid are both normal, protective substances in the body. Cholesterol is no more the cause of heart disease than stomach acid is the cause of GERD or ulcers. But one of the fundamental flaws of western medicine is its tendency to treat the symptom or effect rather than the cause. Unfortunately for patients, doing so can actually make things worse, not better.
Cholesterol plays many essential roles in the body, and and lowering it arbitrarily not only doesn’t prevent heart disease, but can actually increase the risk of dying from a heart attack in elderly people. Likewise, stomach acid is crucial in protecting us from the pathogens we might otherwise ingest with food. Stomach acid is also required for protein digestion. It is well-established in the scientific literature that the primary cause of ulcers is a bacterium called h. pylori – not stomach acid. And there is also evidence suggesting that GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease) is caused by low – not high – stomach acid.
But I digress.
The scariest part of this study is the surge in children’s use of medicines to treat weight-related problems and other illnesses previously considered adult problems. Medco estimates about 1.2 million American children now are taking pills for Type 2 diabetes, sleeping troubles and gastrointestinal problems such as heartburn.
The majority of these conditions – diabetes, sleeping troubles and gastrointestinal issues – can be treated by simple diet and lifestyle changes. These changes have none of the adverse effects and risks of drugs, and their benefits extend far beyond the potential therapeutic action of the medications.
Medication has improved and even saved the lives of many in this country and around the world. Yet there’s a difference between drugs that are “medically necessary” and drugs that are prescribed in lieu of other less harmful and risky – but more labor intensive – interventions such as diet and exercise.
But as Dr. Robert Epstein, cheif medical officer at Franklin Lakes, N.J.-based Medco said, ‘We’ve become a couch potato culture (and) it’s a lot easier to pop a pill” than to exercise regularly or diet.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
One reason for the increase in medication use is the pharmaceutical industry’s “relentless advertising”. Since that is unlikely to change anytime soon, experts say the proportion of Americans on chronic medications can only multiply.
“Unless we do things to change the way we’re managing health in this country … things will get worse instead of getting better,” predicted Daniel Jones, a heart specialist and dean of the University of Mississippi’s medical school.
Luckily, we don’t have to wait around for that to happen. As individuals we can take responsibility for our own health care using diet, exercise and lifestyle changes. We can choose to use “alternative” modalities such as acupuncture and homeopathy to keep us healthy. And we can take action to reduce stress and promote emotional and psychological well-being.